Using Games to Teach Statistics

gamerWe usually think of games as a distraction—just something we do for fun. However, growing evidence suggests that games can do much more, especially when it comes to learning in a classroom setting.

Because statistics is a topic that doesn’t come easily to most, using properly designed games to teach statistics can become a valuable tool to spark interest and help explain difficult concepts.

So what kinds of “properly designed” games are we talking about here? Not traditional board games like Monopoly or Chutes and Ladders, but interactive computer games—the types of games younger generations have grown up with.

Dr. Shonda Kuiper, Associate Professor and Chair of the Mathematics and Statistics Department at Grinnell College, Kevin Cummiskey, Assistant Professor at the United States Military Academy, and Colonel Rod Sturdivant, Associate and Academy Professor at the United States Military Academy, have been exploring the use of games in their classrooms for many years.

Dr. Kuiper, Professor Cummiskey, and Col. Sturdivant started their research because they realized the challenge of getting their students to not only become proficient in executing statistical tests, but to also understand statistics for use in the real-world and in the context of the larger research process.

“We shifted the focus from statistical calculations without a tie to the context of scientific research,” says Kuiper. “Our materials provide an alternative to lectures and textbook style problems that incorporate research-like experiences in the classroom.”

As a way to incorporate these methods into their instruction, Kuiper and Studivant introduced game-based labs to their students.

“The labs leverage students’ natural curiosity and desire to explain the world around them—so they can experience both the power and limitations of statistical analysis,” says Kuiper.

Below you’ll find an example of how the online computer game “Tangrams” can be used to teach hypothesis testing, and how statistical software like Minitab can help to analyze the data.

Teaching Hypothesis Testing with “Tangrams”

Tangrams is a web-based puzzle game that requires a player to solve a puzzle by covering an image with a set of shapes by flipping, rotating, and moving the shapes.


Prior to starting the game, the class decides upon one or more research questions they want to investigate as a group. For example, students may decide to test whether the game completion times differ based on the type of music that is played in the background, and then they translate the research question into testable hypotheses.

Students design the experiment by determining appropriate game settings and conditions for collecting the data. After the student researchers design the experiment, they become subjects in the study by playing the game. 


The Tangrams website collects the players’ information and records their completion times, and the data is available for immediate use through the website. The students return to their role of researcher to analyze the data that they collected. 

Next, using statistical software like Minitab, students calculate basic summary statistics and plot histograms of the Tangrams completion times. Students discuss and make decisions about data cleaning, such as removing outliers, and then check assumptions, conduct appropriate statistical significance tests, and state their conclusions. 

“While playing the role of a researcher, students are forced to make decisions about outliers and possibly erroneous data,” says Kuiper. “They experience ‘messy’ data that often make model assumptions highly questionable.”

Many students responded very favorably to these types of game-based labs, commenting that they liked being involved in the data collection process because it made the data “real” to them.

“As a group, students enjoyed playing the games,” says Cummiskey. “The labs seemed to truly engage students who were otherwise quiet throughout the semester.”

An Application to Quality Improvement Statistics?

Through the National Science Foundation (NSF) supported grants (NSF DUE #0510392 and NSF DUE #1043814), Dr. Kuiper and others provide materials that can be used as projects within an introductory statistics course or to synthesize key elements learned throughout a second statistics course. The materials can also be used to form the basis of an individual research project and to help students and researchers in other disciplines to better understand how statisticians approach the scientific process.

The lessons could certainly be modified or used as-is in a classroom setting for quality improvement professionals learning statistics to complete Leans Six Sigma and other types of improvement projects. If you’re Master Black Belt or Green Belt instructor, perhaps the ideas in this post will inspire your instruction!

You can read more about Dr. Kuiper and Dr. Sturdivant’s research in the paper, “Using classroom data to teach students about data cleaning and testing assumptions,” which is freely available at http://www.frontiersin.org/Quantitative_Psychology_and_Measurement/10.3389/fpsyg.2012.00354/abstract

Sample materials and datasets are also freely available at http://web.grinnell.edu/individuals/kuipers/stat2labs/.

What kinds of teaching methods have been helpful for you in learning statistics? Please share below in the comments section.

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